The Pirates essentially finalized their 25 man roster earlier today. Technically speaking there are still a few additional players in camp but all of them are expected to begin the season on the DL. Overall the roster is constructed in a very expected manner and while it is not how I would have went about doing it most of the decisions are at least somewhat understandable. There are always going to be people who complain about the fringes of the 25 man roster but at the end of the day those fringes really do not matter much, it is the core of the team and the overall depth (bench, bullpen and minor leagues) that will determine the fate of a team. The 5th starter, the 5th bench spot and the 7th reliever are not really positions that will dramatically alter the course of a team so the overreaction to the Pirates decisions on those roster spots is likely overblown. With all that in mind let’s take a look at how the Pirates roster looks headed into Opening Day.
C: Russell Martin
1B: Garrett Jones
2B: Neil Walker
3B: Pedro Alvarez
SS: Clint Barmes
LF: Starling Marte
CF: Andrew McCutchen
RF: Travis Snider
BN: Michael McKenry, Gaby Sanchez, Jose Tabata, John McDonald, Josh Harrison
SP: AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jonathan Sanchez, Jeff Locke
RP: Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Jared Hughes, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, Chris Leroux, Jeanmar Gomez
In reality the only players I would remove from the roster if I was in charge of its construction would be McDonald, Harrison (eventually Inge) and Gomez. In their place I would prefer to see Mercer, De Jesus and Morris. The other change I would like to see made is swapping Wilson and J Sanchez. Wilson is younger and in my opinion more likely to be able to contribute to the rotation for a few starts while Sanchez at this point is probably best suited trying to turn his career around as a lefty reliever. Even these changes though are for the most part temporary. When Liriano comes back I would most likely opt to bump Wilson from the rotation, when Karstens comes back I would most likely opt to bump Morris from the bullpen and I can even understand the argument for wanting McDonald over De Jesus. I don’t get Harrison or Inge over Mercer though. I know Mercer can’t play the outfield while the other sort of kind of can but the Pirates have enough options where they shouldn’t be considering playing infielders in the outfield anyway. The other advantage Inge has is supposedly power but people seem to forget Mercer has a little pop in his bat as well, it was just 2011 when he lead the Pirates minor leagues in home runs. Still arguments over the last bench spot are basically trivial and irrelevant. I don’t get why the Pirates need two (or even one) veteran middle infielders on the bench who can’t hit but in reality the difference between them and the other options is most likely negligible.
With that rather long disclaimer out-of-the-way I figured now was as good as time as any to take a look at the players the Pirates have opted to bring north.
The starting infield is what we expected it to be all along. Russell Martin behind the dish will be counted on to provide solid defense and hopefully will produce somewhere in the vicinity of league average offense from the catcher position. The Pirates likely overpaid for him but if his superior pitch framing skills are actually real and not just a product of catching for guys like C.C. Sabathia then there is a chance he lives up the contract or maybe even provides some surplus value. I’m not expecting much in terms of offense from him but if he can be non horrible and provide the Pirates with an OPS around .700 I would take it.
Garrett Jones likely won’t be playing full-time at first base but assuming the Pirates actually stick to regularly platooning him this season he should get about 70% of the starts. Jones is here for essentially one purpose, to provide the Pirates with relatively cheap power. The rest of Jones’ game is fairly unremarkable from his defense to his baserunning but he is a fair hitter with plus power. That doesn’t make him a super valuable piece but it makes him an asset in the middle of the order. On the hot corner will reside Pedro Alvarez. Like Jones, Alvarez could probably benefit by sitting against some left handers but hopefully the Pirates give him a chance to prove his worth against them. Also like Jones, Alvarez is here to provide the Pirates with some power but unlike Jones, Alvarez has enough power potential where he could develop into an extremely valuable piece. Alvarez is going to strike out too much and not play the best defense at third but if he can show a little more plate discipline, draw a few more walks and continue blasting home runs he is going to have a lot of value.
Up the middle Neil Walker figures to get nearly every start at 2nd base and assuming Inge takes Harrison spot he better be starting everyday as the Pirates really won’t have a viable alternative on the 25 man roster. He had some back problems near the end of last season which bares watching but in reality any injury to him would really hurt the Pirates. It is unclear whether Hurdle plans to use him near the top of the order or more towards the bottom but given the fact he is one of the few Pirates players with a decent knack for getting on base placing him near the top (or eve at the top) of the order would probably be the wisest decision. Up the middle with Walker is Clint Barmes. Barmes’s value comes almost entirely from his ability to field the shortstop position very well but even so he is going to have to improve upon last year’s numbers to be of much use to the Pirates. Over the last 4 months of 2012 Barmes posted an OPS of around .650 and if he is able to do that for an entire season he won’t be the most glamorous shortstop but he will give the Pirates value.
The starting outfield is pretty much what we expected all along. There was a quasi competition for the corner spots but for the most part those were basically just made up as it was rather clear who should be the starters. In center field the Pirates will once again have their superstar Andrew McCutchen. There really isn’t a whole lot to say about him. He is likely one of the best 10 players in the game today and in order for the Pirates to have any chance of competing he will need to perform at a MVP caliber level. McCutchen did have a few flaws last year though and hopefully this season he will improve upon them. Last season he struggled stealing bases and was a little on the weak side defensively. Considering the rest of his game these are minor points of course but shoring them up would only make him more valuable.
In the corners the Pirates will use Starling Marte and Travis Snider. I expect to see both of them rested, especially Snider, on a fairly consistent basis but they will both get a long chance to prove themselves. Marte has plus speed and is a great defender so even if he struggles with the bat this season he is likely to still provide the Pirates with value. By no means is Marte’s bat weak though as he has the potential to possibly be the Pirates second best hitter this season behind only McCutchen. Marte is likely going to be forced into the leadoff spot a role he isn’t really suited for since he has some strike out issues but if he can maintain a high average and show any improvement in plate discipline he should be serviceable there. In the other corner will be Snider. He doesn’t have the speed or defense of Marte so he is going to have to hit to create value. People tend to think him hitting is less likely than Marte hitting well but in reality I think its a pretty even race. Snider has shown flashes in the past and comes with more power potential than Marte. The Pirates in order to have a shot at competing probably need one of these two to break out and become a true plus player and the other one will have to at least hold his own and be an average starter.
As I have previously stated the construction of the bottom of the bench really doesn’t matter a whole lot but the players near the top of the bench will likely get a lot of playing time so they will matter a good deal. The top player on the bench is likely Gaby Sanchez and he is expected to pick up the 30% or so of the starts that Garrett Jones doesn’t get at 1st base. Ideally Sanchez would bounce back to his 2010-11 form but that doesn’t really seem likely. In reality all the Pirates need him to be is a good bat against LHP and a good PH option off the bench two roles I think he’ll have no problem handling. Jose Tabata could potentially wind up in a similar situation to Sanchez only in right field. It is possible he winds up platooning with Snider and if that is the case he too will have to hit very well against left handed pitching. Tabata has the upside for more though. At this point he isn’t likely to develop into your traditional starting corner outfielder but he has very good plate discipline and that alone has the potential to make him a valuable asset atop the order. His speed although it has been questioned is still above average and his defense is probably around average as well. Tabata has the makings of an OBP first starting corner outfielder or a solid 4th outfielder. He is likely to be the second most important bench player.
The third most important bench spot and the last I see with much value will go to Michael McKenry. As the backup catcher he is likely to get at least 60 starts this season and will need to continue hitting as well as he did last season to provide value in those starts. His defense is decent but often overrated by Pirates fans but his bat can make him a solid backup catcher. The last two spots are currently slated to go to Harrison and McDonald but Inge will likely eventually assume Harrison’s role. In my mind the most important of these spots is the Harrison/Inge spot. This is supposedly the offensive first infield bench spot so whoever holds it down is going to have to actually you know hit at a respectable level. McDonald will serve as Barmes backup and though he is probably a touch worse both offensively and defensively his presence in the lineup for a day here or there shouldn’t really cause a noticeable difference.
Right now the Pirates rotation is a bit of mess. At the top of it the Pirates have probably one of the best one-two punches they have had in a while in AJ Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez. Neither one is a true ace but both seem like fairly safe bets to put up solid numbers this season. At 36 and 34 years old respectively there is of course the chance that either Burnett or Rodriguez has reached the end of their rope as pitchers but with how both of them pitched last year it seems likely they probably have another year or two of value left in them at least. Behind them is James McDonald who si the ultimate wildcard for the Pirates. If there is a true ace currently in the Pirates rotation it is James McDonald. McDonald showed us in the first half of the season last year that he has the talent to be a number one starting pitcher but he showed us in the second half of the year that he isn’t ready to be that yet and possibly never will be. What James McDonald the Pirates get this year, potential ace, borderline #5 starter or somewhere in between will probably be one of the biggest factors in how the Pirates season winds up.
Rounding out the rotation are a pitcher who amazingly actually has a wider range of possible outcomes than McDonald and a pitcher who looks like a fair bet to be a solid a back end guy but who has yet to prove it at the major league level. Jonathan Sanchez is another wildcard in the Pirates rotation but he is even less likely to pay off than McDonald. If Sanchez can keep his control problems at a minimum he will have an excellent chance of being a solid middle of the rotation starter for the Pirates but if he can’t he will most definitely be a total disaster. The Pirates really can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be expecting much from him. If Sanchez can give the Pirates 3 or 4 non-horrible starts in the month of April without completely exploding then it should be considered a success. The other pitcher Locke is a different story. Locke pitched exceptionally well in AAA last season but in his short stint in the majors was the victim of a very unlucky high home run rate. Assuming the high home rate drops this season which it will almost assuredly do I’m fairly confident Locke can become a solid #4 starter for the Pirates and mange to keep them in almost every game. He isn’t the flashiest pitcher but his performance in AAA has earned him this shot.
The back of the bullpen will consist of Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Jared Hughes. These four actually make for a fairly solid quartet of arms. Grilli has been successful in a set up and middle relief role the last two seasons and will inherit the closer role this year. Melancon struggled last year in April and was sent down to the minors but when he returned to the majors he pitched pretty well The two of them , Grilli and Melancon, will likely be the Pirates 8th and 9th inning duo. By no means is this the best back end duo in the league but the tandem should be able to close out most leads that are handed over to them. Watson and Hughes were rather successful last season in their middle relief roles and will be counted on this season in later inning situations. Hughes will probably inherit the 7th inning role and Watson will continue being the top left handed releiver in the bullpen. The success of these two last year makes it fairly likely the adjustment should be relatively smooth.
At the front of the bullpen trying to bridge the gap to the back 4 guys will be Justin Wilson, Chris Leroux and Jeanmar Gomez. All 3 pitchers are capable of throwing multiple innings and all will likely be called upon to do so throughout the year. Wilson provides the Pirates with a second lefty and one who is more of a strike out pitcher. Leroux and Gomez will likely pick up most of the long relief duties. Both are out of options and one of them is likely to be released once pitchers began to get healthy so it will be sort of an extended competition for the duo. Leroux appears to have the more upside but Gomez has more major league experience. Leroux and Gomez are both fairly replaceable relievers so they will have to pitch well this season to remain with the team.
With only 11 days left until Opening Day I thought it was time to take my final crack at predicting which 25 guys the Pirates will take north with them.
Catchers: Russell Martin, Michael McKenry
Both Martin and McKenry are healthy and appear ready to begin the year. There has been some talk about the Pirates looking for a catcher but I imagine that would only be as a depth option for AAA. These two have been locks to make the team since Spring Training began and nothing has changed that.
1st Base: Garrett Jones, Gaby Sanchez
Despite battling an injury early in the spring Jones now appears at full strength and should be ready to open the year as the Pirates regular 1st baseman. The plan all along this spring was to have Jones be the starter and for Gaby Sanchez to platoon with hm and pick up the starts against left handed starters. Sanchez has also been working out at third this spring and will hopefully be a viable alternative there.
2nd Base: Neil Walker
Fairly straight forward here. Walker is healthy and is the Pirates everyday 2nd baseman.
3rd Baseman: Pedro Alvarez
Again no rocket science here. Alvarez struck out a lot last season and has been struggling this spring but the Pirates have little choice but to let him have a shot at being an everyday or close to it 3rd baseman.
Shortstop: Clint Barmes, John McDonald
Before yesterday it wasn’t so clear just who would be backing up Barmes but the acquisition of McDonald clears things up quite a bit. Barmes will start on most days but when he needs a breather or is pinched hit for late in games McDonald will see some time in the field at shortstop.
Left Field: Starling Marte
Contrary to popular belief I don’t think Marte had a starting spot nailed down headed into Spring Training but from all reports he has looked great and his numbers have been solid so he will now undoubtedly as he should start the year as the everyday left fielder.
Center Field: Andrew McCutchen
Duh, who else would it be?
Right Field: Travis Snider, Jose Tabata
Some thought Sands or possibly Presley or even Hawpe may factor into right field mix at the beginning of Spring Training but it became fairly clear early on that the spot was Snider’s to lose and that in all likelihood Tabata would make the team as the 4th outfielder and split time with Snider in right taking most of the starts against left handed pitchers.
Starting Pitcher: AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Locke
Burnett, Rodriugez and McDonald have long been assumed and nothing from this spring changes that. The three of them will form the Pirates top 3 going into the season. The last two spots have looked like a bit of mess all Spring Training as Liriano hasn’t been healthy at all and Karstens really hasn’t been either. Locke hasn’t exactly separated himself from the pack but he was a favorite for a job headed into spring training and no one has really over took him at this point.
Bullpen: Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Jared Hughes, Chris Leroux
Things have gotten a lot less settled in the Pirates bullpen in the last couple of days. Grilli, Melancon and Hughes were all assumed to essentially be locks since the beginning and nothing has changed on that front. Also considered near locks were Tony Watson and Bryan Morris bu Watson has only pitched sporadicly and Morris apparently has an option remaining meaning he could start in the minors without the Pirates having to risk losing him. Leroux is out of options and has had a pretty strong spring so I expect the Pirates to keep him on the roster and not risk losing him.
For those of you not keeping track at home that is only 20 players meaning there are still 5 spots available. These are the 5 that I think still come with some uncertainty.
Bench (1): Josh Harrison, Brandon Inge, Alex Presley, Felix Pie, Brad Hawpe, Jordy Mercer, Ivan De Jesus, Jared Goedert
At this point there is only one bench spot remaining and all the above players still vying for it. With the acquisition of McDonald I assume Mercer and De Jesus are out of the running. Non roster invitees Hawpe and Goedert seem like long shots and are unlikely to make the team. That leaves Harrison, Inge, Presley and Pie. I would prefer to see the Pirates use this last spot on the best offensive player but knowing how Huntington and Hurdle like to construct a roster I think this last bench spot is likely to go to an infielder with some versatility so that eliminates Presley and Pie. This final spot in my mind is down to Harrison and Inge. To date Inge has shown nothing tha hints he would be an asset to this team so I expect the Pirates will opt to carry Josh Harrison as the final bench player.
Rotation (1): Jeff Karstens, Kyle McPherson, Jonathan Sanchez, Jeanmar Gomez
Before his disastrous start yesterday I would have said McPherson would get the last spot if Karstens wasn’t ready to go but now I’m not too sure. I still can’t imagine any scenario in which Gomez gets the nod but the Pirates are keeping Sanchez starting and have to make a decision on him by the 24th. I think there are serious doubts that Karstens will be ready by the start of the season but right now I’m still inclined to say he will take the last rotation spot.
Bullpen (3): Bryan Morris, Tony Watson, Jeanmar Gomez, Justin Wilson, Ryan Reid, Mike Zagurski, Jonathan Sanchez
Although he still has an option remaining Bryan Morris remains in my opinion one of the Pirates strongest options for the bullpen so despite the fact there is now a chance he could start the year in the minors I still expect to see him as part of the bullpen on Opening Day. Watson has me legitimately concerned at this point and I am now leaning towards the idea of him not being ready by Opening Day and actually starting the season in the minors. I’m expecting the Pirates to carry two left handers in the bullpen to start the season regardless of Watson’s health so assuming everything breaks as I predict that leaves no room for Reid or Gomez and makes the final two spots a battle between Wilson, Zagurski and Sanchez. At this point I can’t see Sanchez making the team unless they opt to have him start in the rotation so my prediction is the final two spots will go to Wilson and Zagurski.
Lineup: Marte (LF), Walker (2B), McCutchen (CF), Alvarez (3B), Jones (1B), Martin (C), Snider (RF), Barmes (SS)
Bench: McKenry (C), Sanchez (1B-3B), McDonald (2B-3B-SS), Tabata (OF), Harrison (2B-3B-SS-OF)
Rotation: Burnett, Rodriguez, McDonald, Locke, Karstens
Bullpen: Grilli (CL), Melancon (SU), Hughes, Morris, Leroux, Wilson (LH), Zagurski (LH)
Last offseason I did a 15 part preview of the Pirates upcoming seasons focusing on what I expected to see out of various positions at the major league levels, the minor levels, the coaching staff and the front office. The series went over fairly well with my readers so I have decided to bring it back for a second year. I’m not sure how many parts this year’s series will include but I will do my best to cover every key player I can think of.
The Pirates super star. Instead of asking what should we expect from him it might be better to ask what we shouldn’t expect from him. And what we shouldn’t expect is a repeat of last season. It is going to be very difficult for McCutchen to have as good as of a 2013 as he did a 2012 but at the same time I wouldn’t say it is impossible for him to do better. I’m not quite sure we have seen McCutchen at his best yet but even so just with the variation one expects from year to year 2012 will be a very difficult one to top. Make no mistake about it we should expect McCutchen to continue to be one of the best players in the game and I have great confidence that he will continue to do so. He is a rare and special talent and us Pirates fans are lucky to have a player of his caliber on our club. No other franchise has a player quite like him. Now as for what is a reasonable expectation from McCutchen this season. I see a solid 6.0 WAR season with more consistency and improved defense being a fair projection for our superstar. As far as a slash line goes something in the .290/.370/.480 ranges feels like a nice conservative estimate with something like .310/.380/.520 being a bit more optimistic projection. Bottom line here is that we should expect Andrew McCutchen to continue being well Andrew McCutchen.
With the possible exception of Pedro Alvarez and of course Andrew McCutchen no player will have a greater impact on the success or failure of the Pittsburgh Pirates than Starling Marte. As I have previously stated the Pirates desperately need a second true impact hitter and while Alvarez appears to be the most logical choice to become that, Marte isn’t far behind as the Pirates second most realistic option. Marte no doubt has a huge upside and in fact at is very best may be near the level of Andrew McCutchen with less bat and more glove, however it is unfair to expect that from Marte during his first full year. It is fair though to expect Marte to be a very valuable player though basically just because of his speed and defense alone. Just those aspect alone couple with a mediocre performance at the plate probably makes Marte a 2.0-2.5 WAR player. In reality we should expect to see some offensive value from Marte though and that likely bumps him up into the 3.0-3.5 WAR range with the potential for more. As far as his overall game is concerned I think we should reasonably expect to see great defense out of left field and a legitimate threat on the bases. His high strike out rate and relatively low walk rate means he might not be too effective in the lead off role the Pirates appear to plan to use him in but the value is still there. As for a slash line it is difficult to say just what to expect but as a floor a .260/.310/.420 line seems reasonable to me. Couple that in with about 1o home runs and 20 steals and the Pirates have themselves a very dynamic player with the potential to do much more.
The Pirates have plenty of other outfielders but they are all involved in what is the right field mess. Some of the right fielders are bound to spend some time in left field and will probably be the first called upon to do so should poor performance or injury become an issue but the only other player I feel comfortable calling a left or center fielder right now is Felix Pie. Pie was signed to a minor league contract this offseason and in a lot of other years would have a reasonable shot at winning a bench job with the Pirates. This year his chances are essentially none and it would in fact be a little surprising to see him in a Pirates uniform at any point in 2013. Right now the expectation for Felix Pie has to be that he will go to AAA and serve as depth and probably split time between left and center field. Pie is a very talented player that just hasn’t reached his potential. There is a very small chance, almost non-existent, that he finally puts it together this season and gets promoted bases on his talent alone but that would be a bit of a miracle.
Going into this offseason I identified to key areas in which I felt the Pirates needed to improve. The top priority was and should quite frankly near always be starting pitching depth. The Pirates worked on that this offseason by tendering Morton, resigning Karstens, (allegedly) signing Liriano and adding a few players like Jonathan Sanchez and Vin Mazzaro to serve as depth. The second area I pointed out was their lack of OBP and by extension top of the order and specifically lead off candidates. To address this the Pirate have done … well … nothing. Russell Martin was added and while I have heard some rumblings he might bat 2nd that really shouldn’t be an option except possibly against left handed pitching. So it appears the Pirates are going to try to address this problem internally. Let’s take a close look at the options:
The first thing we need to ask is what exactly does a team want in a leadoff hitter. The typical lead off hitter is viewed as someone who is fast and can steal bases but more importantly it is about getting on base and to a smaller extent making pitchers work. Since the primary goal of a leadoff hitting is getting on base I am going to focus most of this discussion of OBP but as a secondary number I will look at BB and K rates and finally as a third number I am going to look at stolen bases. Looking at those stats and comparing them to the league I get a very rough estimate that a good leadoff hitter should meet at least the following criteria: .330 OBP, 8-10 BB%, 15-20 K% (so 2:1 K:BB), 25 SB at a 75% rate. Those are reasonable estimates of minimum production teams would be expecting out of good leadoff hitters. So to compare the Pirates players to those standards I will use their 2013 ZiPS projections.
Russell Martin: .328 OBP, 10.3 BB%, 16.1 K%, 7 SB, 78 SB%
Michael McKenry: .297 OBP, 8.7 BB%, 24.8 K%, 1 SB, 50 SB%
Garrett Jones: .309 OBP, 7.7 BB%, 21.1 K%, 5 SB, 71 SB%
Gaby Sanchez: .324 OBP, 8.7 BB%, 14.6 K%, 3 SB, 75 SB%
Neil Walker: .328 OBP, 7.9 BB%, 18.5 K%, 8 SB, 62 SB%
Pedro Alvarez: .313 OBP, 10.2 BB%, 31.1 K%, 2 SB, 67 SB%
Clint Barmes: .289 OBP, 5.5 BB%, 18.7 K%, 3 SB, 50 SB%
Josh Harrison: .299 OBP, 3.7 BB%, 12.1 K%, 12 SB, 67 SB%
Jordy Mercer: .286 OBP, 5.4 BB%, 18.2 K%, 5 SB, 56 SB%
Chase d’Arnaud: .285 OBP, 6.4 BB%, 21.6 K%, 24 SB, 83 SB%
Starling Marte: .310 OBP, 4.3 BB%, 22.8 K%, 24 SB, 67 SB%
Andrew McCutchen: .369 OBP, 11.4 BB%, 18.0 K%, 23 SB, 68 SB%
Travis Snider: .310 OBP, 7.4 BB%, 22.7 K%, 9 SB, 69 SB%
Jose Tabata: .329 OBP, 7.9 BB%, 15.0 K%, 19 SB, 61 SB%
Jerry Sands: .304 OBP, 8.5 BB%, 25.0 K%, 4 SB, 80 SB%
Alex Presley: .308 OBP, 6.1 BB%, 18.0 K%, 15 SB, 65 SB%
Well as should have been expected no one met all the criteria listed and in fact no one at all met the 25 SB criteria. Since the Pirates do not have an ideal leadoff hitter (something we already knew) I think it is time to look at the best of the flawed options.
OBP > .330
Only one Pirates player projects to have an OBP over .330 and he is obviously the best choice to bat leadoff but the problem is he is the same guy who is the best choice to bat 3rd, 4th, 5th and well really anywhere in the lineup. With an ideally balanced lineup Andrew McCutchen is the obvious choice to be a leadoff hitter and if he can improve his stolen base efficiency he would be as near perfect a lead off hitter as one could make. However we all know he has more value to the Pirates batting in the middle of the lineup and driving those runs in than he does sitting atop the lineup, getting on base and ultimately staying on base.
OBP > .320
The Pirates have 4 players who have an OBP in the .320s and without an obvious choice to leadoff it would make sense that the player should come from this group. Those players are Russell Martin, Gaby Sanchez, Neil Walker and Jose Tabata. Looking at the secondary numbers I posted each of these players BB% and K% look fairly good as well as the BB% are at the very least near 8% and the K% for all of them is less than 20%. Where the divergence happens though is in the SB department, only one of these players, Jose Tabata is any sort of threat on the bases and while he does have the speed to swipe bases he like most other Pirates isn’t good at picking his spots. Still there is little doubt that outside of McCutchen the Pirates player best suited for the leadoff spot is Jose Tabata but there is a problem with that as Tabata’s 2012 struggles has made it very likely that he won’t be in the starting lineup. Gaby Sanchez is in a similar position as he is only expected to get consistent at bats against left handers. That leaves us with martin and Walker. In an ideal world where the leadoff hitter is determined only by the ability to get on base Martin batting lead off against lefties and Walker against righties makes a ton of sense as both players do a really good job getting on base against those particular handedness. In practice Martin is a catcher and catchers no matter how much they are suited for it rarely if ever lead off. I would not dismiss the possibility of Walker doing so however.
OBP > .300, BB% > 7.5%
Next up are 3 players who do not put up the best on base percentages but show a decent knack for working a count as shown by their projected BB%. These 3 players Garrett Jones, Pedro Alvarez and Jerry Sands. On the surface none of these 3 look like a leadoff hitter and when you dig a little deeper that becomes even clearer. Alvarez’s strike out rate is projected to be above 30% and his power bat is too valuable to have at the top of the order and he is better suited for a slugger role somewhere in the middle of the lineup. Similar to Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates count on Garrett Jones for his power and middle of the order presence. He doesn’t strike out a ton though and is actually has a fairly high OBP against right handed pitchers so using him at the top of the lineup against them shouldn’t be entirely dismissed. THe other player Sands faces a similar situation to Tabata as there is probably just not a whole lot of playing time to be had by him. Even so with a projected 25% strike out rate and a low OBP the top of the order probably isn’t a good place for him.
OBP > .300, BB% < 7.5%
There are 3 more players with a projected OBP above .300 but all of them do not walk a lot. They are Starling Marte, Alex Presley and Travis Snider. First I’ll deal with Travis Snider, he is a lot like Garrett Jones in that the Pirates are going to be expecting him to provide power but that his OBP is decent enough that using him near the top of the lineup can not be completely dismissed in the right situations. The other two players Starling Marte and Alex Presley fit the look of a traditional leadoff hitter. Both are speedy outfielders that can steal a base fairly well. However both have some OBP problems and Marte has a strike out problem. Presley is in the same boat as Tabata and Sands and in actuality is probably worse off so it is unlikely he gets enough playing time to be a real leadoff hitter candidate. Starling Marte appears likely to be the Pirates first choice as a leadoff hitter but his projected numbers show he really isn’t a good fit for that role. He can steal some bases but he will really work a walk and is projected to have a strike out rate more than 6 times greater than his walk rate.
OBP < .300
I have 5 other players listed above but they have even greater on base problems than the ones I have already discussed. McKenry is a solid backup catcher with a little power but he quite obviously has the OBP nor the speed to handle lead off duties. Clint Barmes is expected to be the everyday starting shortstop but that is more for his defensive prowess than anything with the bat. He quite simply should see nothing but the bottom of the order. All that leaves us with is the 3 primary candidates for the reserve infielder jobs in d’Arnaud, Harrison and Mercer. Each one has his strengths but none of their strengths are really getting on base. d’Arnaud is a decent enough base stealer but can’t hit well enough to get on base at a decent enough clip, Mercer is a solid defensive player but once again is lacking with the bat, and Harrison is a little better with the bat and is a decent base runner but lacks a true position and doesn’t have the plate patience nor the OBP ability to make any sort of leadoff hitter.
So what does all of this tell us? Quite simply that the Pirates are going to have to patchwork their leadoff spot and their top of the order. All things should be on the table. Players like Garrett Jones, Travis Snider, Russell Martin and Gaby Sanchez need to be considered for the top of the order even though they aren’t your prototypical choices. Neil Walker shouldn’t be pigeon-holed as a #2 hitter as he has the ability to be a competent lead off hitter at least against left handers. I am going to share my own ideas for lineups below and then discuss my rationale behind them.
In my lineup against right handers I am having Walker lead off because he is the Pirates best OBP man against right handed pitchers outside of Andrew McCutchen. The second spot in my order came down to Garrett Jones and Travis Snider both of whom can post decent OBPs against right handers while providing a little pop but Jones is more proven in that regard and I want the younger Snider concentrating more on unlocking his power pontential rather than trying to set the table. The middle of the order I kept the same for both lineups as I think Cutch fits well in the 3 hole and that it is time for Pedro to get a real chance to inherit the clean up job. Marte is more of a run producer than a leadoff hitter so batting him 5th gives him a oppurtunity to do and if he develops he could possible move up to the 3rd spot which would allow Cutch to inherit the lead off spot. Rounding out the lineup I have Martin and Barmes who I hope will at least be competent. If Martin sits McKenry can just slide right into the 7th spot.
In my lineup against lefites I start with Tabata as I am not ready to give up on him quite yet and feel it would be for the best to sit Snider against left handed pitching. Outside of McCutchen, Tabata is clearly the player that best profiles as a leadoff hitter so this will give him a chance to audition for that job. The second spot came down to either Martin or Sanchez and I went with Martin because I feel Sanchez brings a little more power lower in the lineup and I feel that Martin’s track record of posting a high OBP against lefties is just a touch better than Sanchez’s. The middle of the order stays the same as I want those guys to try and establish themselves. I dropped Walker the whole way down to the 7th spot because when he is forced to bat right handed he really struggles. I wouldn’t mind seeing him swapped with Sanchez though and batting 6th. And of course Barmes rounds out the lineup. When Martin sits move Sanchez up to the 2 spot and insert McKenry in Sanchez’s spot.
My lineups may be a little unconventional but I feel they make the best use out of what is the poor assortment of top of the order candidates the Pirates currently have in their stable.
Andrew McCutchen: Do I really need to say anything about McCutchen? I think we all know how truly great a season he had. There aren’t too many negative things to say about a player who should be but probably isn’t a serious threat to win the NL MVP. Yes he cooled down some in August like the rest of the Pirates but even then he was still producing at a very high level. If there are a couple of things we can knock McCutchen for they are his base stealing and his tendency to throw to the wrong guy after fielding a ball in the outfield. Too many times this season we saw McCutchen thrown out trying to steal or making an ill advised throw to someone. One can not be too critical though as Andrew McCutchen made the huge step forward this season and became the face of the Pirates franchise. If the Pirates are to be successful next year and in the near future it will be on his shoulders. Oh one last thing remember its McCutchen not McCutheon, how so many national and even local media types kept spelling his name wrong this season is beyond me. Overall Grade: A
Gregory Polanco: For most of the season Polanco’s big breakout season was being over shadowed by Hanson’s big break out year but by the end of the season the two finished with very similar stat lines. Very few people question Polanco’s ability to stay at CF and because of this he is considered a top prospect. In addition to strong defense in center field Polanco has some power in his bat and was very good on the base paths this season. Polanco is your prototypical 5 tool talent and is definitely a prospect to keep our eyes on going forward. He will play next season in A+ and will hopefully build off of his success this season and blossom into one of the best prospects in the game.
Barrett Barnes: The Pirates drafted Barnes in the supplmental round this season and after he signed he went to A- and hit very well at the level. Some question whether Barnes has the ability to stick in center field but some also think he will eventually develop the power needed to play a corner outfield position. Barnes season was unfortunately cut short due to injury but he was still very impressive in his major league debut. As an advanced college player the Pirates will probably could choose to aggressively push Barnes to A+ ball but with Polanco there he will obviously not center field so the Pirates might instead opt to send him to A ball and let him get acclimated to full season ball before speeding up his development.
Elvis Escobar: Escobar was signed near the same time as Harold Ramirez and like Ramirez was aggressively pushed at 17 years old to rookie ball in the United States. Escobar got to start playing immediately as he wasn’t dealing with any injuries and played well enough to entrench himself as the starting center fielder. Overall he had a slightly better line than Ramirez did this season and seems to be the more advanced of the two but at 17 years old he still has a lot of work to do with his game. Escobar doesn’t profile to hit for much power but he does have the speed and throwing ability to stick in center field so that may not be a huge issue. The Pirates may opt to aggressively push him to A ball but it seems more likely he’ll move up just one level to A-.
I’m going to cover a mystery player here today. A Pirates player who has receive a lot of grief this season, a lot of it deservingly so, but who has been overlooked and is thought to be performing far worse than he actually is. For the past couple of months this has been my argument about Clint Barmes but I have a new player to discuss today. This player since June 1st has hit for a line of .273/.364/.373/.737. Admittedly the slugging percentage leaves a lot to be desired and the sample size we are talking about here along with being fairly arbitrary is a small 189 PA. However that .364 number sticks out to me. The Pirates have very few players who are capable of psoting an OBP like that over a sustained amount of time. In fact I would argue it is only two. One of them is the face of the franchise and MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen and the other is the much maligned, despised, criticized and basically hated Jose Tabata.
Look I’m a Tabata advocate and I’ll freely admit there is a whole lot wrong with Tabata’s game. He appears to have lost a step even though I beleive how much he has lost has been greatly over exaggerated. He is not the best base runner, specifically base stealer but really this can be said about essentially every Pirate and hios defense this year at times was poor to say the least. I believe the base running/stealing is a coaching issue which will hopefully be addressed this offseason (but that is another discussion) and I beleive the defensive problmes he showed early in the season were a result of playing hurt or gingerly (ie his head had him convinced the injury was still there and going to act back up). Tabata has problems that require a lot of work to fix but one thing he can do and do rather well is get on base. Prior to this year Tabata had two seasons with an OBP over .340. This may not sound like much but the one thing the Pirates offense is really lacking are table setters, guys to get on in front of McCutchen, Jones, Alvarez and even Walker. Starling Marte and Travis Snider don’t fit this description and quite obviously neither does Clint Barmes.
For the last couple weeks (months really) I’ve been considering ways to improve this team and I cam up with a few (I’ll discuss later) but one of the first things that came into my head was that this team needed to be deeper. It needed an outfield with on base skills who could do a good job off the bench and who was good enough to hold down a starting position should an injury arise. My search led me to a few names but the one I liked the best was Reed Johnson. Upon digging a little deeper and realizing Johnson has been rather lucky the past 2 seasons with a high BABIP and after sitting down and giving it some critical thought I’ve determined that Tabata is more suited to the 2013 Pirates than Reed Johnson or an outfielder of that ilk.
Now should the Pirates decide to not move forward with an outfield of Marte-McCutchen-Snider with a little bit of Jones sprinkled in and pursue a higher level outfielder (a possible move I will discuss later on) the issue of cutting ties with Tabata (through a trade of course) becomes much less but as of now I expect the Pirates to keep that outfiled alignment and in the likely event they do I think the perfect 4th outfielder for that group is already with the team in Jose Tabata. He can spell Snider against lefties and help ease in Marte, meaning he should play about 3 days a week and in those days will be able to solidly fill the leadoff spot.
Scratch #1 off my front office to-do list. There are no words to describe just how good of news this is for the Pittsburgh Pirates. In my mind this marks the defeat of the Pirates biggest enemy … themselves. Over recent history the Pirates biggest obstacle to overcome has been there own mismanagement but recent events such as increased focus on the draft, adding to the team at the 2011 deadline, getting a deal done with Bell and acquiring Burnett and Bedard to shore up the rotation this offseason have slowly been changing that. Today’s extension of McCutchen in my mind shows they have finally cleared that hurdle. No longer on they a small market team that makes and uneven playing field more uneven instead they are now a small market team facing just the same issues as all the other small market teams. This marks a step towards normalcy and for the Pirates that is a great thing.
For those wanting to read more about the extension, check out the Trib: http://pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/breaking/s_784926.html
Here are the details of McCutchen’s extension. Included with all of that is a 1.25 million dollar signing bonus and a 1 million dollar buyout of his 2018 option.
$500,000 in 2012
$4.5 million in 2013
$7.25 million in 2014
$10 million in 2015
$13 million in 2016
$14 million in 2017
$14.75 million club option for 2018
I’ve seen it estimated that McCutchen’s three arb years (2013-2015) could net him as much as 27 million so the fact the Pirates got those years for 21.75 million is a bargain. Add to the fact the 3 free agent years they control appear to be for around market rate for what McCutchen is now and this looks like a spectacular deal for the Pirates. They don’t come around often but today is a good day to be Pirate fan and I for one could get use to this.